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The Rookies: Week 9

A look at the current rookie crop

The annual influx of each succeeding wave of rookies will always be one of the most appealing dimensions of fantasy football, they are the life blood of dynasty leagues, a mystery to unravel and code to crack for redraft purposes, identifying the right ones before they breakout can confer huge advantages and they keep the hobby unceasingly renewed, reinvigorated and ever fresh.

This expands and brings to the forefront a sub-section of the Ear to the Ground column that ran for the past decade (and replaces it). It also inverts the previous order, with some material formerly covered first under the Team Reports section found later in abbreviated form in the section now called Select Veteran Notes. It will still conclude with a scouting profile (including coverage of both rookies and veterans).

While dynasty is the general purview of this column, the Rookie of the Year awards for Offense and Defense are by definition focused on the current season. What may be a seeming contradiction is resolved by the fact that rookies that excel and gain traction early tend to be on good footing towards a fast tracked, accelerated development for dynasty purposes (and of course players like Jared Goff, Kenneth Dixon and Laquon Treadwell that are destined to have their value surge beyond 2015 will also be tracked closely and receive coverage). The initial rankings reflect the accumulation and weight of the respective prospect's scouting grades culminating in their first action as rookies, opportunity and expected role, as well as some historically-informed/driven heuristics and positional constraint observations highlighted below (on both offense and defense). As we get further into the season, actual production will increasingly be weighted more strongly, and rookie prospects will move up or down accordingly. In addition to tracking stats on a running basis, the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year lists will be accompanied by ongoing updated individual commentary as development, progress and material changes in their respective opportunities and roles warrant it. This column will appear every other week during the 2016 season.

Rookie of the Year - Offense (past 25 years)

•1991 - Leonard Russell, NE, RB
•1992 - Carl Pickens, CIN, WR
•1993 - Jerome Bettis, LA, RB
•1994 - Marshall Faulk, IND, RB
•1995 - Curtis Martin, NE, RB
•1996 - Eddie George, HOU, RB
•1997 - Warrick Dunn, TB, RB
•1998 - Randy Moss, MIN, WR
•1999 - Edgerrin James, IND, RB
•2000 - Mike Anderson, DEN, RB
•2001 - Anthony Thomas, CHI, RB
•2002 - Clinton Portis, DEN, RB
•2003 - Anquan Boldin, ARI, WR
•2004 - Ben Roethlisberger, PIT, QB
•2005 - Cadillac Williams, TB, RB
•2006 - Vince Young, TEN, QB
•2007 - Adrian Peterson, MIN, RB
•2008 - Matt Ryan, ATL, QB
•2009 - Percy Harvin, MIN, WR
•2010 - Sam Bradford, STL, QB
•2011 - Cam Newton, CAR, QB
•2012 - Robert Griffin III, WAS, QB
•2013 - Eddie Lacy, GB, RB
•2014 - Odell Beckham, NYG, WR
•2015 - Todd Gurley, STL, RB 

Positional Breakdown

•QB - 6 (all in the last 10 years, signaling a trend of recently increased preparedness from the college level, trust, usage and/or desperation with quicker front office and coaching staff hiring and firing cycles, as well as the fact that there just are never enough good veteran QBs at any given time to cover all 32 teams - also, the same contemporary rule changes favoring offense in general and the passing game specifically, benefit not only vets, but the most talented, prepared, hard working and smartest rookies)
•RB - 14 (11 in the first 15 years, just 3 in the 10 since)
•WR - 5 (both rarer and more evenly distributed, in approximately half decade intervals)
•TE - 0 (enough said)

As seen from above, RBs dominated the Rookie of the Year award on offense in the first 15 years of the last quarter century, and largely QBs in the last decade. The skill position class of '16 has three first round QB prospects (including the #1 and #2 overall picks) and also includes a late fourth round gem and potential future star, a RB class featuring one of the top prospects at his position in the past decade taken #4 overall but not a particularly exceptional group beyond him, a good looking WR class that makes up in depth what it lacks in elite star power and a middling TE group that could nonetheless offer as many as three or more solid starters in future seasons.

Rookie of the Year - Offense (2016)

Player, Team, Position, Age ('16), Pedigree, College, Height/Weight

1) Ezekiel Elliot, DAL, RB, 21, 1.4, Ohio State (6'0", 225)
(22-96-0 rushing, 4-52-0 receiving AND 159-799-5 rushing, 15-150-0 receiving TOTAL)

Elliot is putting up Top 3-5 numbers among RBs, and is within striking range of #1. The best OL in football helps. It will be interesting to see how the offense changes once Tony Romo is reinserted back into the starting lineup. Elliot is roughly on pace to break Eric Dickerson's rookie season rushing yardage record. 

2) Dak Prescott, DAL, QB, 23, 4.37, Mississippi State (6'2", 225)
(19/39-287-2 and 1 INT, 7-38-1 rushing AND 144/221-1,773-9 and 2 INTs, 27-105-4 rushing TOTAL)

Prescott is still putting up top 10 numbers at his position, and has been a very effective runner. If he is replaced by Romo soon that increases the chance this becomes a one player race for Rookie of the Year favoring his teammate, but he has been nothing short of brilliant and Jerry Jones and the Cowboys have clearly found their long term replacement at the position. It is no longer a question of IF he replaces Romo, just when. Has the upside to eventually become one of the top 3-5 signal callers in the game. Prescott outdueled fellow rookie QB Carson Wentz (in a possible preview of the next decade plus) in their highly anticipated week 8 showdown and hasn't lost since opening week.   

3) Jordan Howard, CHI, RB, 22, 5.11, Indiana (6'1" 220)
(26-153-1 rushing, 4-49-0 AND 99-505-2 rushing, 18-177-1 receiving TOTAL)

Howard is coming off his best effort of the season, with a massive all purpose game against the Vikings on MNF, with 153 rushing yards, 200+ combined yards, 4 receptions and 1 TD. He has the lowest pedigree on the offensive side (fifth round, QB Dak Prescott fourth round). Very hard to knock off his pins, great lower body strength, contact balance and tackle breaking power, also nifty feet and deceptive elusiveness for a 220+ lb. back, but it is his vision and instincts that could ultimately make him special.   

4) Michael Thomas, NO, WR, 23, 2.16, Ohio State (6'3", 215)
(6-63-0 AND 42-500-3 receiving TOTAL)

Thomas is moving up to a mid/high end WR2, and could make a push for WR1 status. After initial promise production-wise by Will Fuller and Sterling Shepard, he is currently the only rookie WR projected to reach 1,000+ receiving yards. Amari Cooper was the only WR to do it from the class of '15, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin did from the historically unprecedented and extreme statistical outlier/anomaly WR class of '14.

5) Carson Wentz, PHI, QB, 24, 1.2, North Dakota State (6'5", 235)
(32/43-202-1 and 0 INT, 1-minus 3-0 rushing AND 150/228-1,526-9 and 3 INTs, 19-40-0 rushing TOTAL)

As noted above, Wentz came up short in the rookie QB battle royale last week against Dak Prescott, but he should get another chance in the week 17 regular season finale. While Prescott is playing amazingly well even relative to veteran QBs, Wentz has come back to Earth a bit after a blistering start, but is still playing exceptionally well for a rookie. Wentz has a very bright future, including all the tools such as plus size, arm strength, off the charts football IQ, leadership, maturity, professionalism and charisma to be a franchise QB and long term star in the NFL. Somewhat reminsicent in his physical stature, athleticism and game of a Carson Palmer/Ben Roethlisberger mash up. He could use some technical refinement and tightening up of his passing mechanics, which should improve already above average accuracy.    

6) Hunter Henry, SD, TE, 22, 2.4, Arkansas (6'5" 250)
(2-14-0 AND 22-340-3 receiving TOTAL)

Henry could take over as starter for Antonio Gates as soon as 2017, or at least carve out a substantial role. Not a seam bursting speed merchant, freakish physical specimen or athletic prodigy, he "just" has a very solid, well rounded overall game, is a polished route runner, seems to have a knack for finding the soft spots in zone coverage and consistently gets open. The 2015 Mackey Award winner for the top FBS TE couldn't have asked for a better mentor in Gates or QB in Philip Rivers. Rookie TEs aren't supposed to do well, but Henry could be the rare exception.

7) Will Fuller, HOU, WR, 22, 1.21, Notre Dame (6'0", 180)
(1-23-0 AND 25-372-2 receiving, 1 punt return TD TOTAL)

After an incendiary start, Fuller is being dragged down by an increasingly ineffective and embattled Brock Osweiler at QB. Earlier in the season he became just the fourth rookie WR in the past decade and a half to have a receiving and punt return TD in the same game (joining Tavon Austin, T.Y. Hilton and Dez Bryant). Will never be Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas over the middle and in traffic, but has a deceptively well rounded game and better hands than advertised, and benefits from reduced coverage playing across from DeAndre Hopkins.    

8) Sterling Shepard, NYG, WR, 22, 2.9, Oklahoma (5'10", 195)
(5-32-0 AND 31-334-2 receiving TOTAL)

Shepard has been as good as advertised in the early going. His highly advanced, pro-ready skill set have seemingly made his transition to the pros as effortless and seamless as his mature beyond his years, technically refined route running. Like Tyler Boyd (see below) with potential future Hall of Fame WR A.J. Green, Shepard benefits by playing across from one of the league's best and top five WR Odell Beckham.  

9) Derrick Henry, TEN, RB, 22, 2.14, Alabama (6'2", 245)
(16-60-1 rushing, 4-37-0 receiving AND 53-221-1 rushing, 9-107-0 receiving TOTAL)

Henry showed a spark and signs of life with his best game of the season so far. His playing time has been limited due to great play by DeMarco Murray, who in the first half of the season is looking a lot more like the league leading 2014 Cowboys than disappointing 2015 Eagles iteration. But Murray turns 29 in the upcoming offseason, and Henry sure likes like the future. While unusually built for a RB (cross between Brandon Jacobs and Eddie George), he has succeeded at every level, winning not just the Heisman in college, but before that, setting Florida state rushing records in his senior year (4,261 and 55 TDs), as well as the national career yardage mark (12,124).  

10) Tyler Boyd, CIN, WR, 22, 2.24, Pittsburgh (6'1", 195)
(5-38-0 receiving, 1-3-0 rushing AND 25-283-0 receiving, 1-3-0 rushing TOTAL)

Boyd has strong RAC skills, honed as a record setting PA RB. Like Thomas (Brandin Cooks), Fuller (Hopkins) and Shepard (Beckham), he benefits from playing opposite A.J. Green, and should rarely if ever be double teamed. Also, like Thomas and Shepard (and with the exception of Fuller), he benefits from outstanding QB play. 

Standing on the Verge

• Jared Goff, LA

• Devontae Booker, DEN
• Corey Coleman, CLE 
• Austin Hooper, ATL

Quarterback
• Paxton Lynch, DEN
• Christian Hackenberg, NYJ
• Cody Kessler, CLE
• Connor Cook, OAK
• Cardale Jones, BUF
• Nate Sudfeld, WAS

Running Back

• DeAndre Washington, OAK
• Wendell Smallwood, PHI
• Kenneth Dixon, BAL
• Kenyan Drake, MIA
• C.J. Prosise, SEA
• Tyler Ervin, HOU
• Paul Perkins, NYG
• Jonathan Williams, BUF
• Alex Collins, SEA

Wide Receiver
• Josh Doctson, WAS
• Laquon Treadwell, MIN
• Braxton Miller, CLE
• Leonte Carroo, MIA
• Tajae Sharpe, TEN
• Chris Moore, BAL
• Malcolm Mitchell, NE
• Ricardo Louis, CLE
• Pharoh Cooper, LA
• Demarcus Robinson, KC
• Jordan Payton, CLE
• Tyreek Hill, KC
• Rashard Higgins, CLE
• Mike Thomas, LA
• Nelson Spruce, LA

Tight End
• Tyler Higbee, LA
• Nick Vannett, SEA
• Seth DeValve, CLE
• Temarrick Hemingway, LA
• Jerell Adams, NYG
• David Morgan, MIN

IR 
• Jacoby Brisset, NE

Defensive Rookie of the Year (past 25 years)

•1991 - Mike Croel, DEN, LB
•1992 - Dale Carter, KC, CB
•1993 - Dana Stubblefield, SF, DT
•1994 - Tim Bowens, MIA, DT
•1995 - Hugh Douglas, NYJ, DE
•1996 - Simeon Rice, ARI, DE
•1997 - Peter Boulware, BAL, LB
•1998 - Charles Woodson, OAK, CB
•1999 - Jevon Kearse, TEN, DE
•2000 - Brian Urlacher, CHI, LB
•2001 - Kendrell Bell, PIT, LB
•2002 - Julius Peppers, CAR, DE
•2003 - Terrell Suggs, BAL, LB
•2004 - Jonathan Vilma, NYJ, LB
•2005 - Shawne Merriman, SD, LB
•2006 - DeMeco Ryans, HOU, LB
•2007 - Patrick Willis, SF, LB
•2008 - Jerod Mayo, NE, LB
•2009 - Brian Cushing, HOU, LB
•2010 - Ndamukong Suh, DET, DT
•2011 - Von Miller, DEN, LB
•2012 - Luke Kuechly, CAR, LB
•2013 - Sheldon Richardson, NYJ, DE
•2014 - Aaron Donald, STL, DT
•2015 - Marcus Peters, KC, CB

Positional Breakdown

•DT - 4 (Two in the past half decade plus, after about a decade and a half interval)
•DE - 5 (Richardson the first one in over a decade)
•LB - 13 (11 in the decade and a half plus since 2000)
•CB - 3 (Peters first in over a decade and a half since Charles Woodson in 1998)
•S - 0 (Over a quarter century since Mark Carrier in 1990)

Once again, as seen from above, LB has dominated the Defensive Rookie of the Year award (unsurprising, it is a cliché that it is the most instinctive and RB-like position on defense), especially in the last nearly decade and a half. DL has been more rare (heavily dependent on physical maturation and technical development), though there were six in the first decade plus, plus two in a row before 2015, with a mini-comeback for the position. The secondary has been rarer still (it is generally harder to make the number of splash plays or be as active in sheer volume from the boundary or back end of the defense, compared to the more centrally situated LB), with Marcus Peters the first DB to win in more than a decade and a half since Charles Woodson. The defensive class of '16 features a potentially strong LB position group (which will be bolstered further if Cowboys second rounder Jaylon Smith can return from a serious knee injury including nerve damage by 2017), DE took a blow as usual with many top prospects converted to LB, such as Leonard Floyd, Shaq Lawson, teammate Kevin Dodd and Emanuel Ogbah. DT lost top 3-technique pass rusher Sheldon Rankins due to a broken leg, CB is strong in numbers and Jaylen Ramsey might be one of the top defensive players in the class at any position, and safety looks weak overall for several years in a row, though mid-first round picks Karl Joseph and Keanu Neal are gifted athletes and could be very productive once they inexorably are elevated to starting gigs.   

Defensive Rookie of the Year (2016)

Player, Team, Position, Age ('16), Pedigree, College, Height/Weight

1) Jatavis Brown, SD, LB, 22, 5.36, Akron (5'11", 220)
(7 solo tackles, 3 assists AND 43 solo tackles, 11 assists, 3 sacks, 2 FF TOTAL)

Brown could be viewed as the rookie defensive counterpart to fellow fifth rounder, RB Jordan Howard (who has the lowest pedigree on the above list). He has been making plays all over the field and filling up the box score. It awaits to be seen if he can hold up on the inside, where his safety-like size makes him maybe the smallest starting ILB in the league. Currently putting up around top 5 production depending on scoring format, very impressive for the unheralded Akron product. 

2) Deion Jones, ATL, LB, 22, 2.21, LSU (6'1", 230)
(6 solo tackles AND 39 solo tackles, 14 assists, 2 INTs, 1 TD TOTAL)

Jones continues to play at a top 5-10 level after an earlier ankle injury. As noted previously, at the rate the Falcons are scoring, opposing offenses could be playing from behind a lot, which is right in the wheelhouse of Jones, as he has the coverage skills of a safety (already has two INTs in less than half a season of starts, including a pick six week three against Drew Brees and the Saints).

3) Keanu Neal, ATL, S, 21, 1.17, Florida (6'1", 210)   
(6 solo tackles, 2 assists AND 37 solo tackles, 20 assists, 3 FFs TOTAL)

Neal is a violent hitter and playmaker, his 3 FFs are tied for second in the NFL (OAK LB Bruce Irvin has 4 FFs). While drafted by former Seahawks DC Dan Quinn, he isn't as big as Kam Chancellor, and has more in common with NFC West hybrid former safety/LB conversions Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron, and could put up similar top 10-20 LB-like tackle numbers. Quickly becoming a leader of the secondary and eventually one of the defense and team overall. A foundational, cornerstone-type player. Quinn, the front office and scouting department absolutely nailed their picks in the first three rounds, with Neal, MLB Jones and good looking TE Austin Hooper. 

4) Karl Joseph, OAK, S, 1.14, West Virginia (5'10", 205)
(7 solo tackles AND 31 solo tackles, 12 assists, 1 INT TOTAL)

Joseph has been an ultra-productive tackler since being inserted into the lineup. In addition to exceptional coverage ability and ball skills for a safety (at the time he went down last year he was among the national leaders in INTs), his ruthless and intimidating striking ability in run support has been compared variously to Brian Dawkins, Bob Sanders, Troy Polamalu and Earl Thomas. Joseph has rare pedigree for a safety and oozes unmistakable star potential.

5) Joey Bosa, SD, DE, 21, 1.3, Ohio State (6'5", 280)
(2 solo tackles AND 11 solo tackles, 2 assists, 4 sacks TOTAL)

Bosa had two multiple sack games out of his first three starts and would probably be higher up the list (maybe a lot higher) if he had resolved his contract situation in time to begin the season. Scouts had already identified him as probably the most talented and natural run defender at his position in the draft, but early signs are pointing to being a potential blue chip, elite pass rusher. Could have the size, athleticism, talent, skill set and complete, all around game for a big man to eventually be a poor man's J.J. Watt.

6) Yannick Ngakoue, JAX, DE, 21, 3.6, Maryland (6'2" 255)
(11 solo tackles, 2 assists, 4 sacks, 3 FFs, 1 INT TOTAL)

Ngakoue had a stretch with a sack in four consecutive games and FF in three straight earlier in the season, but his production has dwindled in recent weeks and he has tumpled out of the top 10 among DEs and the top 5 in the rankings here.

7) DeForest Buckner, SF, DE, 22, 1.7, Oregon (6'7" 290)
(BYE AND 15 solo tackles, 21 assists, 2 sacks TOTAL)

Like Calais Campbell, he is an agile man mountain with nifty feet and shocking athleticism for his towering size. Playing 3-4 DE generally tends to not be conducive to racking up massive IDP stats, but Campbell embodies a testament to the possibility. Retired serial All-Pro Justin Smith also had some highly productive years in a similar role, and they also share elite, super blue chip pedigree for the DE position.

8) Leonard Floyd, CHI, LB, 24, 1.9, Georgia (6'6", 240)
(2 solo tackle, 1 sack AND 12 solo tackles, 6 assists, 3.5 sacks, 1 FF TOTAL)

Floyd got off to a slow start and makes his first appearance on the list. One of the most explosive edge rushers from the class of 2016, he has the kind of frame to add weight (same as fellow first round LB Darron Lee but 5" taller) and strength without losing his freakish burst. Current Bears and former 49ers DC Vig Fangio noted athletic similarities with Aldon Smith at the time of the draft, who before imploding due to maturity and off-field issues, broke Reggie White's first 30 game sack record, and was on a Hall of Fame-type career arc and trajectory.  

9) Darron Lee, NYJ, LB, 22, 1.20, Ohio State (6'1", 240)
(DNP AND 22 solo tackles, 8 assists, .5 sack TOTAL)

Lee hasn't played since week 6 (and will miss his third game in a row Sunday). As alluded to before, the former Ohio State star seems destined to be a top 20 LB eventually, but is undersized, relatively new to the LB position (just two years in college after playing QB and safety as a prep) and switching to the inside on top of getting acclimated to the far greater speed at the next level. Once he settles in and becomes more familar with the different inside out run support vectors, he will benefit from one of the best DLs in the NFL - as do LA MLB and former Georgia safety prospect Alec Ogletree and WLB and former Alabama All-American S Barron.

10) Su'a Cravens, WAS, LB, 21, 2.22, USC (6'1", 225)
(2 solo tackles, 1 sack AND 12 solo tackles, 5 assists, 1 sack, 1 INT TOTAL)

Cravens missed a few games in October (like Lee). The second rounder has a lot of parallels with first round rookie LB Lee, extending to being undersized for a LB, and offering a possible explanation for their relatively slow starts. Once Cravens gets comfortable (both in the NFL and at his position), he is an extraordinarily talented and versatile defender. While not as fast, he has similar size to Tampa Bay Hall of Fame WLB Derrick Brooks, yet has the ability to break on the ball and make plays in coverage like a CB. Supremely instinctive playmaker with a RARE skill set. On the bonus plan, has the imprimatur (i.e. - seal of approval and endorsement) of highly successful former 49er and Seahawk personnel guru/exec Scot McCloughan.

Standing on the Verge

• Noah Spence, TB
• Emmanuel Ogbah, CLE
• Vonn Bell, NO
• Vernon Hargreaves, TB

Defensive Tackle
• Kenny Clark, GB
• Vernon Butler, CAR
• Chris Jones, KC
• Austin Johnson, TEN
• Jihad Ward, OAK
• A'Shawn Robinson, DET
• Jarran Reed, SEA
• Maliek Collins, DAL
• Javon Hargrave, PIT
• Sheldon Day, JAX

Defensive End
• Robert Nkemdiche, ARI
• Adam Gotsis, DEN
• Carl Nassib, CLE
• Jonathan Bullard, CHI
• Shilique Calhoun, OAK
• Adolphus Washington, BUF
• Hassan Ridgeway, IND

Linebacker
• Shaq Lawson, BUF
• Myles Jack, JAX
• Kevin Dodd, TEN
• Kamalei Correa, BAL
• Jordan Jenkins, NYJ
• Nick Vigil, CIN
• Kyler Fackrell, GB
• Joe Schobert, CLE
• Joshua Perry, SD
• B.J. Goodson, NYG
• De'Vondre Campbell, ATL
• Antonio Morrison, IND
• Blake Martinez, GB
• Kentrell Brothers, MIN
• Josh Forrest, LA

Cornerback
• Jalen Ramsey, JAX
• Eli Apple, NYG
• William Jackson III, CIN
• Artie Burns, PIT
• Xavien Howard, MIA
• Mackensie Alexander, MIN
• Cyrus Jones, NE
• James Bradberry, CAR
• Kendall Fuller, WAS

Safety
• Sean Davis, PIT
• T.J. Green, IND
• Kevin Byard, TEN
• Darian Thompson, NYG
• Miles Killebrew, DET
• Deon Bush, CHI
• K.J. Dillon, HOU

IR
• Jaylon Smith, DAL
• Reggie Ragland, BUF
• Sheldon Rankins, NO
• Bronson Kaufusi, BAL
• Andrew Billings, CIN
• Will Redmond, SF
• Charles Tapper, DAL

Select Veteran Notes

Offense

Detroit - QB Matthew Stafford is the subject of this installment of The Rookies Scouting Profile section below, and is off to one of the best starts of his career (top 5), after his 5,000+ yard and 40+ TD 2011 campaign. Although he has been in the league a while, the former Georgia star (and fellow alumnus of Highland Park Dallas high school with former Lion QB Bobby Layne) is just 28, and could conceivably be near the top of the food chain at his position after older QBs such as Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger (along with Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck). WR Marvin Jones is currently in the top 10 and is quickly bonding with Stafford at the expense of WR Golden Tate. TE Eric Ebron has been dinged at times in his third season, and could help take the passing offense to another level if he can fulfill his formidable potential. He has among the best career yard per reception metrics for his position in FBS history (with his hero and fellow ACC TE Vernon Davis).   

Los Angeles - The 2016 #1 overall pick, QB Jonathan Goff was in the news during the Rams bye week (returning to action against the Panthers in week 9), with the media and pundits questioning why he hasn't played a down so far in his rookie season. The Rams don't want to rush him and think their patience will be rewarded if he developes into a franchise caliber signal caller, the most important position on the field. While unusual among highly drafted QBs in the past half decade plus (Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota played right away), the strategy didn't hurt Carson Palmer, a former #1 overall pick who sat his entire rookie season learning from Case Keenum-like Jon Kitna. WRB (WR/RB conjunction) Tavon Austin has produced at a borderline WR2 level, but has upside if the Rams can get RB Todd Gurley going and the offense firing on all cylinders - especially if Goff is as good as advertised.  

Oakland - The aerial firepower of QB David Carr (top 3-5) and WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree (both top 5 or close, respectively) is taking the league by storm, and the Raiders were able to overcome an NFL penalty record with an improbable victory in OT against the Bucs last Sunday. TE Clive Walford broke records at TE U Miami, and has been slow to break out as a pro, but could join the party soon, further weaponizing Carr. 

San Diego - RB Melvin Gordon is playing up to the expectations that caused the Chargers to draft him in the top half of the first round of the 2015 draft. He is emphatically, resoundingly putting to rest any lingering doubts based on his disappointing rookie campaign. Wisconsin RBs (like Florida WRs under Steve Spurrier for many years - with the modest exception of former Seahawk Darrell Jackson) generally haven't fared well at the next level, but prospects have to be evaluated on a case by case basis, and Gordon is no Ron Dayne. He did have microfracture surgery on his knee, and long term health seems to be the only potential obstacle to stardom.      

Tampa Bay - QB Jameis Winston (top 10) and WR Mike Evans (top 3) had another massive game, albeit in a tough intra-divisional loss to the rival Falcons. Evans bested super star WR Julio Jones for individual honors, with a monster 11 catch, 150 yard and 2 TD outburst. It was his second game with multiple TDs in the past three weeks (held scoreless in just two of eight games, he currently leads the league with 8 TD receptions). Evans made maybe the best catch of the season thus far, on an acrobatic, twisting, one handed sideline grab that illustrated not only his monstrous paws but sick, freakish agility and body control for a Sleestak-sized receiver. While not as fast, some size and athletic parallels with Calvin Johnson are hard to miss. Winston's offseason weight loss appears to be paying off, as he is moving more fluidly and emerging as a more dangerous playmaker outside the pocket and on the run. That said, he is still going through a learning curve like all young QBs, but has the ability and leadership to be one of the best in the business in a few years. As a battery with Evans, they can grow up together and have the potential to ultimately make each other better with massive upside between them.  

Washington - WR Jamison Crowder has been on a roll lately, and playing at a WR1 level depending on scoring format. It helps that QB Kirk Cousins is producing at a borderline top 5 level. Going into the season with a franchise player designated contract and knowing Cousins was auditioning on a one year, prove it again basis after a phenomenal 2015 campaign, he seemed to be feeling the pressure initially in the opening weeks, but seems to have put the internal controversy behind him.

Defense

Atlanta - Former first round Buc castoff DE Adrian Clayborn overcame a slow start and has been far more productive in the past three games. He lacks elite quickness and bend off the edge, but is powerful for his size and has improved his array of moves and counters in the legalized hand to hand combat and close infighting that characterizes play in the trenches. Clayborn also has a great motor.  

Buffalo - Former Titan second round LB Zach Brown is probably the single biggest surprise in the IDP world so far in the 2016 season. He always had shockingly good speed (not just qualified as "for his size", he ran a cyborg-like 4.44 at 6'1", 245 lbs.), but his instincts and initial step flowing to the ball carrier have taken a quantum leap forward with the Bills. If not for the unfortunate preseason torn ACL to prized Alabama rookie second round interior LB Reggie Ragland, he almost certainly wouldn't have gotten this star making opportunity.    

Houston - ILB Benardrick McKinney is playing at a borderline top 5 level for his position. He came into the league with questions about his coverage ability and three down potential, and has answered both in the affirmative. McKinney runs extremely well given his nearly DE-like size. 

Kansas City - OLB Dee Ford is a player on the rise with 2 & 3.5 sack games in the past three weeks. The Chiefs have to make a decision next week whether or not to activate OLB Justin Houston or shelve him for the rest of the season, but even when he returns, OLB Tamba Hali just turned 33 and is reportedly suffering from a bone on bone knee condition.

New York Jets - DE Leonard Williams (top 3) is showing why some scouts thought he was the most talented player OVERALL in the 2015 draft (that included QB Jameis Winston, RB Todd Gurley and WR Amari Cooper). The "Big Cat" could just be scratching the surface of his enormous potential, and basically has the ceiling of a vaulted cathedral with expected technical development and refinement. He has unusual athletic versatility and positional flexibility for a big man, equally adept as a 3-4 DE or 4-3 DT. While his get off isn't as explosive as the Rams Aaron Donald (nobody's is, arguably one of the best in league history for a DT, at least the equal of Hall of Famer John Randle), it is exceptional for a big man with his kind of power and agility.

Seattle - Cliff Avril (#1 DE) is making up for the injury to bookend Michael Bennett, and having a breakout, career season at 30. LB Bobby Wagner is also having an outstanding, top 5-10 season. The Seahawks are in striking range of a historic, remarkably consistent half decade of consecutive #1 finishes in scoring defense at 15.6 points (Vikings currently first at 14.9). In the past four seasons in reverse chronological order they finished at 17.3 ('15), 15.9 ('14), 14.4 ('13) and 15.3 ('12).  

Scouting Profile

(from the 2016 Pre-Season QB Value Plays article)

Matthew Stafford - Stafford has generally muddled along in the wake of his brilliant 5,000 yard and 40 TD breakout season in 2011, but enjoyed a resurgence at the midpoint of the 2015 season with the introduction of replacement OC Jim Bob Cooter. He finished 6-2 after a 1-7 start, including a 19/2 TD/INT ratio. While it is hard to spin future Hall of Fame WR Calvin Johnson's abrupt departure into a positive, mitigating factors include Marvin Jones being a solid if unspectacular replacement, and being forced to distribute the ball to other receiving weapons such as WR Golden Tate and TE Eric Ebron could hasten the development of a vitally important skill in any QB's game - throwing to the open man.

Thanks for reading The Rookies, all questions and comments invited - magaw@footballguys.com

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